As the Dodgers boarded a flight home Sunday night, soon after Clayton Kershaw had almost single-handedly evened the National League Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs at a game apiece, Rich Hill cracked a joke to his wife.
"I think Clayton's going back to the Bat Cave," Hill said. "And we're all going to hop on the plane and go back to L.A."
Kershaw is not a superhero. But he has reclaimed his status as the organization's hero during the last four postseason games. In a six-day span, Kershaw pitched three times, including recording the save in the Game 5 clincher to defeat Washington in the division series and logging seven scoreless innings in Game 2 against Chicago on Sunday.
Both teams relocated to the West Coast for the next three games. Given the pitching schedule the Dodgers released Monday, Kershaw will not appear in any of them. Hill is slated to duel with reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta in Game 3. Julio Urias is to make his first postseason start in Game 4, against veteran John Lackey.
It is Game 5 that provides the most intrigue for the Dodgers. Manager Dave Roberts listed Kenta Maeda as his starter. But he mentioned an important caveat.
"As the series moves on, you always have to be open to adjusting," Roberts said. "But as it stands right now, that's how we have it lined up."
The Dodgers also initially listed Urias as the starting pitcher for Game 4 against the Nationals in the division series. When Maeda stumbled in a three-inning outing in Game 3, the team switched to Kershaw due to the exhaustion of the bullpen. Pitching on three days' rest, Kershaw turned in 6 2/3 innings. He was charged with five runs, but three scored after he left the game.
Kershaw could pitch on short rest again in Game 5 against the Cubs. Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations, lacked interest in discussing the topic, citing how the events of the first two games at Dodger Stadium will affect the team's decision for Game 5.
"Our focus is obviously on Game 3, and then we'll shift to Game 4," Friedman said. "And then our thought process is solely focused on how to win this series. And whatever we feel like gives us the best chance to win this series is what we will do."
On the surface, the choice for Game 5 looks simple. Kershaw has posted a 2.81 earned-run average in four postseason starts on short rest. His command faded, ever so slightly, in the late innings Sunday, but he still showed fastball velocity in the mid-90s.
In addition, Maeda would be pitching in Game 5 on four days of rest, a situation the Dodgers tried to avoid in the second half of the season. In 13 starts on four days' rest during the regular season, Maeda maintained a 3.97 ERA. In 19 starts after five days or more to rest, Maeda's ERA was 3.16. He gave up three runs in four innings against the Cubs in Game 1.
But the Dodgers do not view the decision as a simple question of Maeda versus Kershaw. The primary factor in giving Kershaw the baseball in Game 4 against Washington was the lack of available relievers, not the fear of losing an elimination game with Kershaw sitting idle.
Thus the deployment of relief pitchers will be important to track during these next two games. Hill will make his third start of the postseason. He could not finish the fifth inning in Game 2 at Nationals Park, and left midway through the third inning in Game 5, which he started on short rest. The latter departure was related to Roberts' insistence on using his bullpen at any sign of trouble.
Urias has never taken a start into the seventh inning in the majors. So the bullpen should see a sizable amount of usage during the next two games. Will it be enough to force Kershaw back into action for Game 5? Time will tell.
"We've kind of shown throughout this season that there is really no one way to win a division, to win a series, to win a game," Roberts said. "I understand it's still the postseason, but I think for our guys, we're focusing each day to win that baseball game, and whatever way that game plays out, our guys are prepared to audible."